The America’s Cup, a yacht race between a single defender and a single challenger and first run in 1851 by the Royal Yacht Squadron in England for a race around the Isle of Wight, is known as the oldest international sporting trophyA. The referenced Wikipedia article provides an excellent history of the contest, and notes that the Americans held the cup continuously from the first race until 1983, the longest winning streak in the history of sport. The cup was last contested in San Francisco in 2013, but this wasn’t your father’s America’s Cup. The vessels were now 72-foot catamarans (boats with two hulls) costing well over ten million dollars each with rigid “sails” and foils (short underwater wings) that lifted the entire hull out of the water. Their top speed was over 50 miles an hour, or about twice the wind speed. The whole race was held within sight of spectators ashore and instead of taking all day, as was customary, was required to be finished in less than forty minutes to fit snugly between commercials in a one-hour television format. The series also turned out to have one of the greatest comebacks in sports. Stu Woo of the Wall Street Journal did an outstanding job of explaining that competitionA. Stu failed to mention a minor change in the rules that bought the American team just enough time to complete the changes necessary to turn things around.
The 2013 America’s Cup was originally billed as a best-of-seventeen series.
A Best-of-T series (where T represents the total number of games to be played and is always an odd number) is widely used in sports championships, although before September 2013 I had never heard of T being larger than seven. In English (for those of you who are not sports fans) it means that the two teams will compete exactly T times (for which we will use seventeen in the rest of our examples) and then count up the points to see who won. One team can declare themselves the winner and send everybody home early if they can accumulate more of a lead than the other team can overcome in the remainder of the seventeen games. In a simple world, meaning a world without ties (in those sports that allow them) or penalty points, that would be nine wins in a best-of-seventeen series (round up(17 ÷ 2)). Yacht racing, as the references in the first paragraph suggested, is not a simple world. Before the series started the American team was penalized two points for cheating in an earlier round of competition, meaning that their first two wins wouldn’t really count (except to keep points away from their competitor). And although the calendar continued to list seventeen races (with the caveat “if needed” as appropriate) well into the competitionD, all of the experts were still saying that it would take nine wins for the Kiwis to take home the trophy. The truth is that after the seventeenth race had been sailed, if New Zealand had only eight wins, then the Americans would have won nine races (17 – 8 = 9), but would only have had seven points (9 – 2 = 7), meaning that New Zealand would have still taken home the trophy. That is what a best-of-seventeen series really means. And, as you can see near the bottom of the Final Scorecard at the end of Stu Woo’s Wall Street Journal article, that is exactly what happened. But just before New Zealand earned their eighth victory in Race 11, the race committee declared that because the American team’s penalty shouldn’t affect New Zealand, they would still need nine wins to take home the trophy. Shortly thereafter Races 18 & 19 were added to the schedule. As we now know, thanks to a brilliant turn-around by the American sailors, New Zealand never got that ninth win; the American’s got that point in the nineteenth and final race. Competition doesn’t get any better than that. Had the Kiwis been able to count up to seventeen or had their English been good enough to understand the meaning of “best of seventeen races”, the ending of this story may have been completely different.